by Ott Koor, archivist at the National Archives of Estonia
Illegal cross-border movement across the Soviet border was a process that characterised the areas along the eastern border of Europe from 1920 to 1940. The communist ideology attracted many, which is why cross-border movements took place primarily towards the Soviet Union and not vice versa. One characteristic example is the case of Estonia.
The state border between the Republic of Estonia and Soviet Russia was determined on the basis of the Tartu Peace Treaty on 2 February 1920. This border became an ideological line, with a young sovereign nation state on the one side and an empire-nature state striving for a communist regime on the other. Despite the fact that countries increasingly strengthened their borders between the two World Wars, thousands of people crossed this border in an illegal way.
We no longer have much information about these people today. Often, the only piece of information we could find are the index cards of the Political Police records from the first period of independence (1918-1940), because the archive collections were destroyed in Estonia before the establishment of Soviet occupation in 1940. These data fragments, which, when correctly used, will open up the possibility to strive for the so-called “historians’s macroscope” to overcome the archival silence.
Who crossed the border and why?
Above all, the border was crossed by young people, most of whom were men in their 20s. By nation those people divided mostly as Russians and Estonians. There were also many who had not yet reached their adult age, as well as those who moved with their family. A significant part of the border crossers was associated with some communist organisation. When we would also add the people who came from Soviet Union to Estonia, approximately nearly 5,000 people could cross the border between 1920-1940.
It is difficult to accurately define the causes of crossings, but three main factors can be identified:
Ideological. Despite the fact that Estonian public policy was anti-communist, there were enough people in society who had communist views or belonged to illegal communist organisations. The significant increase of border crossings occurred after the great failure of the communist coup d’état attempt in 1924, after which the Soviet Union almost completely abandoned the idea of a world revolution. Many communists went back to Soviet Union. It is notable that ideological reasons, which were more related to communist party organisations, characterized more Estonian nationality border crossers than Russian.
Economical. It is important to note that the majority of border crossers came from the eastern near-border areas of Estonia, which were culturally linked in particular to the Russian cultural space and thus distinguished from the rest of Estonia. In addition, it was also a region with a worse economic situation, where communities were seriously impoverished after the border with Soviet Union was established in 1920. At the same time, there was the biggest population recovery in the whole Estonia, which resulted in an increase of border crossings at the end of the 1930s.
Family relations. We have the less information on the family ties of border crossers. However, this may be the most important factor. The data available suggests that many people had developed family relationships during the Emperor’s period, which were divided between both border sides. Often some of the relatives may have lived on the Estonian side and some on the Russian side, so the existence of previous contacts could be one of the main motivators of the border crossings.
What were the results of crossings?
In addition to the above-mentioned reasons, the Soviet Union’s propaganda motivated many of the cross-border travellers. It intensified greatly at the end of the 1930s, when the radio became more accessible to ordinary people. The people near the border often listened to the frequencies of Soviet radio stations, where propaganda slogans about the progress of the Soviet Union were conveyed. It inspired many young people to cross the border. However, the reality did not meet the expectations and most of the border crossers got prison sentences. Young people who got extremely disappointed turned to the Estonian Embassy for help, but Russia granted a return permit only to few. Several people, mostly related with party organisations and went to the Soviet Union earlier in the 1920s were killed as “anti-Soviet elements” during the Great Purge in 1930s.
Ott Koor, “Illegal Border Crossings Between the Republic of Estonia and the Soviet Union in 1920- 1940: Case Analysis on Personnel Card Index Data of the National Archives of Estonia.” (Master Thesis, sup. Professor Aigi Rahi-Tamm, Tartu University, 2021).